1 Samuel 3:1-20
1 Now the boy Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli. The LORD’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the LORD’s temple, where God’s chest was.
4 The LORD called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.
6 Again the LORD called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
7 (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
8 A third time the LORD called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
Then Eli realized that it was the LORD who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.
10 Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
11 The LORD said to Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! 12 On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! 13 I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. 14 Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering.”
15 Samuel lay there until morning, then opened the doors of the LORD’s house. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel, saying: “Samuel, my son!”
“I’m here,” Samuel said.
17 “What did he say to you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide anything from me. May God deal harshly with you and worse still if you hide from me a single word from everything he said to you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.
“He is the LORD, ” Eli said. “He will do as he pleases.”
19 So Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet. (CEB)
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b NRSV). How near to us and our time this sentence sounds. These days, it feels like the word of the Lord is a rare word, indeed, especially amid the corruption we see all around. This story speaks to our today profoundly. The opening chapters of 1 Samuel describe a time of crisis, and a transition of leadership, which sounds strikingly familiar, doesn’t it? Eli was a priest of the Lord, and he was a Judge of Israel (c.f. 1 Samuel 4:18). Samuel, too, was a priest of the Lord and became Judge of Israel after Eli (c.f. 1 Samuel 7:6).
In Samuel’s day, the tabernacle of God stood at Shiloh where the Israelites had set it up in the days of Joshua. Shiloh served as the central location of Israelite worship long before the Jerusalem temple was built. First Samuel 3 tells us the story of Samuel’s call as a prophet of the Lord. He was already serving as a priest alongside Eli and Eli’s two sons because Samuel’s mother, Hannah, made a vow to the Lord that, if he would allow her to conceive a son, then she would dedicate her son to the Lord. Hannah’s story echoes the stories of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and the mother of Samson. We see later echoes of the same in Elizabeth, who gave birth to John the Baptizer.
In chapter 2, we learn how Eli’s two sons were corrupt and immoral priests who didn’t know the Lord, and probably didn’t care to (c.f. 1 Samuel 2:12-17, 22). They stole the best portions of the people’s offerings to the Lord. They had sex with the women who were there to serve the Lord at the tabernacle’s entrance. They were despicable scoundrels. The Hebrew word used to describe them means worthless or wicked. Things were so bad that God sent a man to Eli to give Eli a message: God would end Eli’s house because of how his sons behaved in leading Israel astray, and because Eli, himself, didn’t put a stop to their illicit and unlawful activity (c.f. 1 Samuel 2:27-36).
This was the situation when Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. This is the mess clamoring in the background when we hear that a voice in the night woke Samuel up by calling his name. Samuel assumed the voice was Eli’s, so he ran to the old man’s side and asked him what he wanted.
We’re told, “Now Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (1 Samuel 3:7 CEB). So, this back-and-forth happened three times before Eli—roused from sleep once again—realized that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel. Eli instructed Samuel what he should do the next time the Lord called him.
There is some brilliant wordplay in the Hebrew text that our English translations can’t reveal. Samuel’s name means, Name-of-God or possibly God-has-heard. His mother, Hannah, gave Samuel that name because God heard her plea for a son when she asked the Lord for him.
The word for asked in those verses (c.f. 1 Samuel 1:17, 20, 27) is also a play on the name of Saul, which has the same meaning. It points to how intertwined Samuel’s life would later become with that of King Saul.
Eli’s name means My God, which is more than a little ironic given his disgraced situation. We hear his name again in Matthew when Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:46 CEB).
So, listen to how this scene plays out. The Lord called, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And My-God said, “I didn’t call you. Go lie down.”
The Lord called again, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And My-God said, “I didn’t call you, my son. Go lie down.”
The wordplay is almost comedic. The boy, Name-of-God, kept running to My-God instead of his true God. And it makes me wonder, to what gods do we turn when we don’t know where else to go?
A third time, the Lord said, Name-of-God! Name-of-God! And Name-of-God again ran to My-God, saying, “Here I am, for you called me.” And Eli—My-God—this aging priest with eyes that could no longer see realized that the Lord was calling to Samuel—Name-of-God.
As the scene progresses to this point, I imagine old Eli was truly awake for the first time in an age. There are times in our lives when it’s easier to identify with Eli than many of us would like to admit. At the beginning of our faith—or even at different seasons of our faith—we dedicate or rededicate ourselves to service, and prayer, and spiritual disciplines, and religious instruction. We’re all in.
Then, when difficulties beset us, we can begin to fall asleep: our hearts, minds, and souls can grow disillusioned and tired. We can come to the point where we could work all day in the tabernacle and never see God, never sense the presence of the Holy One, never hear the still small whisperings of the Lord. And those are frustrating periods: soul-rending and dark.
I have had my share of these up-and-down seasons, so I can readily identify with Eli who, at this point, is maybe living in a state of hopelessness and dismay. He knows his sons are worthless. He’s a descendent of Aaron, yet he knows his line as a priest is coming to an end. He knows his own failures as a father are partly to blame. God no longer spoke, or so it seemed, since “The word of the Lord was rare in those days” and “visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b NRSV). So, what’s left for Eli?
I think it’s in this moment of realization that the Lord was calling to Samuel that Eli finds his answer. Samuel proved to Eli that the Lord did still speak, even if Eli could no longer hear it. I think it speaks volumes about Eli that, instead of growing angry or jealous that the Lord would speak to this child instead of him, Eli simply points Samuel in the right direction. Eli is able to tell Samuel exactly what Samuel should do, which is an act of faithfulness.
“Then the LORD came and stood there, calling just as before, ‘Samuel, Samuel!’ Samuel said, ‘Speak. Your servant is listening’” (1 Samuel 3:10 CEB). As I mentioned before, Samuel’s name could also possibly mean God hears, which adds another layer to the wordplay. A boy named God-hears tells the Lord that he’s listening. And the Lord said, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of all who hear it tingle! On that day, I will bring to pass against Eli everything I said about his household—every last bit of it! I told him that I would punish his family forever because of the wrongdoing he knew about—how his sons were cursing God, but he wouldn’t stop them. Because of that I swore about Eli’s household that his family’s wrongdoing will never be reconciled by sacrifice or by offering” (1 Samuel 3:11-14 CEB).
Imagine how difficult a word this would have been for Samuel to hear. He loved Eli. This man raised him. Samuel was faithful to Eli. Samuel ran to him three times in the middle of the night when he thought Eli was calling for him. In the morning, Eli wants to know every word of what God said with nothing held back. And again, I think it says something of Eli that he accepted the Lord’s word. “‘He is the LORD,’ Eli said. ‘He will do as he pleases’” (1 Samuel 3:18b CEB).
Afterward, we’re told that “Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail. All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was trustworthy as the LORD’s prophet” (1 Samuel 3:19-20 CEB). Samuel’s credibility was rooted in the freedom and promise of God. God raises up those who are faithful, and God brings down those who are not. In Samuel and Eli, we see a reversal of roles that becomes a theme throughout the Scriptures and how God deals with human beings. The young, innocent Samuel is authorized to hear and speak the word of God. Eli, on the other hand, became fully dependent upon Samuel to hear the Lord’s word.
It’s a reminder that God takes faithfulness seriously. God has no problem with lifting up the lowly to take the place of the mighty when the mighty fail to obey God’s commandments. It is a story we read about later with Saul and David. We read it again with the destruction of Shiloh and the building of Jerusalem’s temple. And, as Jeremiah later foretold with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (c.f. Jeremiah 7:12-14). Mary echoed the song of Hannah when she sang: “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (Luke 1:52-53 CEB).
The story that Scripture repeats over and again is that those who act with humility, piety, and faithfulness receive God’s favor. Those who act otherwise lose it. For the people of Israel, Samuel’s call became an invitation to a fresh beginning, an invitation to faithfulness, an invitation to live life according to God’s design. Samuel would go on to anoint Kings Saul and David. Under God’s direction, he established the monarchy in Judah and Israel. He would guide the people of Israel all the days of his life because of his obedience and faithfulness. But it all began with a barren, ridiculed woman’s prayer for God to hear.
Throughout the human story, God has called people. Regular people. Insignificant people. Even people like me and you to do the extraordinary. To be called by God is both intimate and urgent. And God’s call can change the trajectory of our lives in ways we could never expect and certainly couldn’t foresee.
Just like Samuel, the first thing we’re called to do is to listen. Sometimes I wonder if the voice of the Lord is rare in these days, or if we just need to learn how to listen. When I have my own “Eli” moments—my moments of doubt—I’ve found in my self-reflection that it’s really not God whom I doubt, but my ability to hear, see, sense, and know. In this particular season in our life, do we feel more like Samuel or Eli?
It might be worth noting that when Samuel had grown old, he appointed his sons as Judges of Israel. But Joel and Abijah didn’t follow in Samuel’s footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice (c.f. 1 Samuel 8:1-3). Their corruption prompted the Israelite elders to ask Samuel to appoint a king over them.
What this tells me is something I—indeed, all of us—should already know: that God loves faithfulness. God will pluck up or pull down what isn’t working, and God will build or plant something new to give us what we need. This cycle of building and pulling down culminated in God’s self-offering of Jesus Christ. God has redeemed us, and we can receive salvation from our sins and new life in God.
Is the world of the Lord rare in our days, or are we not listening? When we hear God calling, may we respond just as Eli told Samuel, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay